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Sunday, 15 September 2013

TO BE A PLAYER



Hi M. Thank you so much for joining us this evening. Can you tell our readers something about yourself?
I am involved with gay programming and advocacy at the United Nations, and I have private patients as a social worker.  And I founded and run a non-profit organization supporting LGBT Jews and their families in the Orthodox community. I think that being Jewish is very essential to who I am. Those are the values of the household I grew up in. My relationship to spirituality is seen through a Jewish light and with Jewish language.
                                Whoops. Wrong conservative religion...
When I think about being gay, I think about people being lonely. I think about a young kid questioning, trying to understand, being lost.  Consequently, being gay to me took on a sense of duty, it became my communal life and communal calling. My community is very much a queer life. Most of my friends identify as LGBTQ or queer. I think about this as my communal life, and this has become my contribution to Jewish community.

Ironically, I don't really think about my own romantic life when I think of my gay identity. Don't get me wrong, I want to be in love with somebody, and I hope that person is as wonderful as can be. I hope to be part of a couple and part of a family, but the gender of the participants of that family could never define it. Based on practicality, given who I am, that person is probably going to be a man. However, I may meet a non-gendered person and fall completely in love with that person. Would I then be gay? Who knows! But much like my Jewish identity is inextricably tied to the destiny of the Jewish people, my gay identity ties me to my beloved LGBT community. 
What was it like, growing up in your family?
I have parents who are still together after getting married at twenty and twenty-one, and I am the first of five children. I have two sisters and two brothers. Both my parents are from orthodox rabbinic families. I guess my family is quite a rabbinic family, with a yeshivish bent. All of my grandparents identify more as misnagdim, Lithuanian, except for my grandmother who grew up in Poland and was part of the Belz dynasty.
Who wore it best?
Yichus! So who were you closest to?
As a child, I was very close with my mother. As I started to learn mishnayos and gemorrah, though, I became very close with my father because he used to learn with me, and then as an adolescent, I wasn’t so close to anyone! Normal! In my twenties I became close to my mother again, and in my late twenties closer to my father and now I am close to both.
Are you close to your siblings?
I am very close to all of my siblings. We are all very close.
 What is your favourite childhood memory?
Turning six! I love Miss Piggy and my mother invited my whole class to my birthday party. She bought me a huge Miss Piggy ice cream cake. I felt, then, like my mother really saw me. She GOT me, and I felt so proud. It was a wonderfully happy time.
What was your coming out process like in such a frum family?
For me, when I was about three and a half, I began identifying as someone who was really a girl and not a boy. I would tell that to anyone who would listen to me. I would tell the shabbos guests! I believed I would go to sleep and wake up as a girl. 
I identified as a girl! In terms of me coming out as non-gender conforming, I was always able to express myself, even as a young child. 
I did not talk about my sexuality to my parents until much later. 
It wasn’t until I was twenty-one that I remember being in the car with my mother, driving to Brooklyn, and my sisters were beginning to shidduch date, and I casually told my mother that if I happened to be dating a boy, and that person was not invited to any of my sisters’ weddings, then I would not come either. That’s how I came out to my family!
In terms of coming out to myself, because I was so gender non-conforming so young, gender was always fluid to me. I didn’t see myself as a gay man for most of my childhood. I saw myself as someone gender non-conforming. I saw my sexuality through that lens. I also didn’t know any other gay people. It was very innocent and very personal. In later years in college, I felt more comfortable identifying as a gay man.
When I was twenty, I became very close with a woman who went to Stern College. It was non sexual/non-romantic, but one day, she challenged me. She said, “I’ve known you for four months, and you’ve never identified as a gay man, but it seems sad that you don’t feel comfortable saying it. But if you ever just need to call someone on the phone, even in the middle of the night, then call me and say, “I AM A GAY MAN!” And I will be very supportive.”
I did not come out right then, but I did eventually. I told her my concerns about having children and what my family would look like, and at the end of the evening, I finally vocally admitted to being a gay man, and I began to be comfortable with that identity. It was not until I met other gay men and saw how we were so similar, and when I learned more about the gay community, all of that solidified my identity as a gay man. But it took a while.
                                Where have you been all my life?
Did you have hopes and dreams that needed to be rethought when you came out as gay, and how do they fit with your Jewish identity?
My hope and dream of having a family and having children doesn’t need to be rethought, because I still hope for that. But what did need to change was the Jewishness of that hope and that dream. I think for a long time the image of this dream involved a Jewish wedding, a chassunah, as central to the beginning of my family life, and it did involve all of the traditional, meaningful elements. I had to give that up. It’s still hard to give that up. (There is a long silence) Even if I date and marry a man, there will be no walking around my partner seven times, and no badeken, and so I wouldn’t be able to have those in my wedding. Having to give that up is hard. It was always a powerful image in my mind. Whatever I have would be different looking wedding and the meaning of the wedding would be different.
How did your parents have to reshape their world?
My parents had to rethink almost everything. They had always seen me as their firstborn who would give them a lot of nachas. They are dealing with giving up and mourning that dream, but then re imagining a new dream and realizing that too. It’s a huge challenge. I really feel for my parents in term of that process because there’s no clear path, no one they know has done this before. And me being their son, I can’t help that much. They probably need outside help. It breaks my heart.
My son and my son-in-law, the Rabbi, such a cute couple!
Do you have a dream about some kind of formalized future plan for gay Jews?
Yes. I think the best of Jewish history tells the story of people who were valued for what made them special. We have a lot of special and different children, and we have learned to appreciate them in the schools and in the homes and in the larger community. That which makes them different makes them valued. I believe that gay kids, or gender- non-conforming kids can still have value within the community. We, meaning the Jewish community, can learn to be a system that values differences. If you are left handed and the majority of the kids are righties, then you will have a hard time working in a company with all right handed equipment. It would be great if the company gave them special jobs, suited to who they are and their special abilities. It’s not necessary to rip out the old equipment.
                                That could be painful...
What do you think Frum Gay families could look like in your dream for the future?
I would hope that their dreams would be rooted in reality. The people who are shaping that dream are the role models for the community today. It may be tempting to think of Frum Gay People (FGPs) adopting the dream of the classic Jewish home with children in yeshiva and a picket fence, but some of those fantasies are based on a hetero-normative model. I think there’s something that is dishonest about that dream. It’s uninformed. I just don’t know what works for gay Jews now. I’m looking very hard and specifically to LGBT adults and the way that they are living their lives and for what works for them and through those narratives, we can hopefully construct a dream. Until then, I try to hold off on formalizing or defining the family construct for frum gay Jews. I think families need to be based in some sense of history. As we see the gay community receive their rights and prejudice goes away, we can begin constructing these family units, and we can learn what we can do to avoid mistakes. Let’s hope that process is mostly supportive and positive. Hopefully families are all in this together, and since we love each other, we should be in this together.
                                Is this way mizrach?
Do you have particular role models?
Well, today is the anniversary of the "I have a dream" speech, so it's been on my mind. I am so inspired by Martin Luther King, his speech and the struggle for civil rights. It’s something that is so recent and it’s a source of endless inspiration. 
                                I have a dream too!
But in terms of people, I am inspired religiously by Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. I often ask my friends whether they had a Rabbi who inspired them religiously; who, when they heard that person’s thoughts, they were spiritually aroused. Sadly, few of my friends have had that experience. In Rabbi Soloveitchik, I am lucky enough to have had that throughout my teenage years, listening to the thousands of tapes my grandfather owned of the Rav's shiurim in hashkafa. I was so inspired and turned on and felt connected to his messages and philosophy. I still am.
My grandparents inspire me. My father’s father was very poor but he built a few businesses, and eventually, he built communities. “If you want to make change you have to be a player”. To him, a “player” is someone who is involved and identified with that involvement. A player has a voice and a vested interest. He takes responsibility for his surroundings and community. He is not just someone who lives in the community. He is someone who shapes the community. My grandfather’s way was through philanthropy, and when he came to a community, he would invest in it and immediately become a “player.” He was the president of a school and shul and one of the builders of the Orthodox community. Someone who people really listened to.
                                Shaping the world from a young age.
My other grandfather, my mother's father, was a renaissance man. He was a Rosh Yeshiva, and close to many of the Gedolim, but he also went to Princeton and the opera, and he enjoyed the great novels and listened to Barbra Streisand! 
All of his boys ended up learning in Lakewood. He straddled many different communities and he made it seem so easy and beautiful. He did it so gracefully. It has always been a struggle for me to balance those things, and yet he made it into a dance. A thing of beauty.
                               Nanuim with a chossid
What are you afraid of?
I am afraid of not knowing my grandchildren. The biological timeline doesn’t look good for me in terms of really having a relationship with my grandchildren. Given the influence that my grandparents had on me, it's terrifying and sad to think that I won't be able to have that with my own grandchildren. Let's face it, if people still live for the amount of time they live for currently, it doesn’t leave me a lot of time to connect with my grandchildren. I’m thirty-four years old. I think that if I have children in five years, then by the time that child is thirty, I will be almost seventy. And that’s when my child would be thinking of having children. The math just doesn’t look good. That makes me sad.
 What makes you very happy?
I love performing. I love musical theater, telling over a story with words and song. And I love my friends; I love experiencing good things with my friends, good music, the beach, good food. And I love the idea that I may, in some way, be able to make a difference.
What is your favourite current memory?
A really happy, exulted time is when the Rabbinical Council of America publicly put out a statement taking down their endorsement of Jonah (* a type of damaging reparative therapy). It was a personal goal of mine to change the policy of the RCA. I had worked on that for almost four years. I wanted to get the endorsement off so badly, and four years later, it happened! I remember the night when I got a text, and I saw the RCA statement. I was so happy and proud of my community, the RCA and myself. I was so proud of what we did. I felt that I made a difference.
What have you accomplished in your life?
I saw a potential world that could happen sooner. I always knew there could be a world where LGBT people could live and have a place, and I saw that we didn’t have to wait until so much more damage could happen. And I knew it from when I was twenty. I saw the possibility, and it helped with making it happen sooner. The world always bends towards tolerance. Whatever amount of suffering was alleviated because of me, because of what I’ve been able to create, that is my greatest accomplishment. I am confident and proud that this safe space for LGBT people in the Orthodox world happened sooner, in part because of my efforts.
I think that too often people are satisfied with a sense that it will all change, eventually!
There are so many people who are not ok. Who are oppressed. You need people to demand to be heard, to create a pressure to change, to create momentum, and I was part of that. I helped with the energy to make that happen. I made support resources for LBGT youth in the Orthodox world, and now Jewish Queer Youth ( JQY) is almost bar mitzvah. In those thirteen years, so much has happened in such a short time in terms of resources: the support groups, the training for mental health professionals, the phone hot lines (551-JQY-HOPE (551-579-4673)), the youth groups, the orthodox high school groups, the creation of Temicha , a group for Orthodox parents of LGBT kids, the Jewish holiday parties with over three hundred people, the Purim party with over four hundred people, and it’s all kosher and beautiful! I helped found and organize the Eshel Shabbatons ( ESHEL) where people  are meeting each other, finding other queer Jews! Today, we are an active and dynamic LGBT community. It’s bubbling and boiling! It’s unbelievable. It's exciting! If that’s not an accomplishment, then I don’t know what is!
In terms of the changes within the rabbinate, there have been some real changes. It’s not as satisfying, though, because straight rabbis are not yet using words of acceptance and self esteem. However, at least their tone has changed. Approaching them is safer, reparative therapy has lost acceptance, and these are all positives. These are all big accomplishments. These are things to be proud of.
After one hundred and twenty years, what would you want your best friend to say as your hesped?
I’d want him to say that M was a player, but in the sense my grandfather meant, that I tried to make the world a better place for people who desperately needed it. That I was able to express emotions in a way completely unique to me, that I made people’s lives sweeter or better because of who I am, whether through words or song or performance. That I was a person of passion. That I was rooted in the rational, but I respected the passions that underlie life, whether they are explainable or not, and I found them holy and cultivated them That I respected gedolim. That I was a force to be reckoned with. For good! That I filled a niche. That I did something that was needed and that only I could do. I didn’t let the status quo stop me. If I saw something wrong, and thought it could be changed, that I created the pressure for change. I didn’t go along with the pack and instead, my will was enough to create a vision for a new way. And maybe, maybe, maybe, that I was a wonderful father, a wonderful parent, and that I could take all the love and specialness from my parents and grandparents, and put it forward to create my own family. It hasn’t happened yet, but maybe.
If you could ask the frum community one thing what would it be?
Um. Lets see. Ha ha. I think it would be a complicated request, but I’d try to …I would ask them to look in at their own community and see who has the least power and who has the smallest voices, and then ask how can we work to be the voices and the advocates of the powerless and the non-privileged, however threatening that may be. Structure and institutions can be threatened by the damage that victims may cause. While I understand the fear of what you worked on crumbling, what we work on isn't worth anything if it causes harm, even to one person. We cannot hurt the many on the backs of hurting some. We must empower the victims, especially those we are most threatened by.
Unfortunately, I see the opposite in orthodox institutions. We too often relate to the abuser and are threatened by the abused. This is an endemic problem in Orthodoxy and must be addressed. I think we can do better than accusing the weakest and the least powerful. It’s not Jewish. It’s not the way we need to behave as ethical Jews. We need to somehow know how to help those who have no power, and those who are suffering in the communities we build.

Honestly, those who are in power don’t need as much help. Can we re-prioritize from helping those with privilege? Let’s start talking about those who have been harmed, those who are telling us they are hurting. Maybe they don’t even have a voice: Women, LGBT folks, abused children, people with intellectual or mental health challenges, any of those people. Hear their protests, admit our possible role in their suffering, and let the infrastructure help the powerless, rather than protecting the privileged.
                                Helping the weak makes you strong